Cashing in on nat’l pastime

India has an estimated 13,000 movie screens and an average per-capita attendance rate of nearly six visits to the cinema a year. It ranks second among all nations in admissions, behind China. In 1993,5.1 billion Indians went to the movies, approximately four times the number of U.S. moviegoers during the same year.

Suffice it to say, Indians are voracious filmgoers. Modi Entertainment Group vice chairman Lalit K. Modi says his countrymen, unlike those in Western societies, rarely go on vacation or take weekend trips. Instead, their major pastime is going to the movies.

The problem for the Hollywood majors is that English-language films traditionally have been restricted to a handful of cinemas, yielding peanuts to producers, while the business is dominated by indigenous product.

United Intl. Pictures overturned conventional wisdom about the Indian film industry last year with its wide release of “Jurassic Park,” which was dubbed into several lingos. (There are 18 major tongues in India, the most prevalent being Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu.) The payoff was an unprecedented gross of more than $6 million.

Twentieth Century Fox followed that release pattern with “Speed,” then Modi Films Intl., which inked an exclusive distrib deal with Buena Vista Intl., made its first foray into the market with “Aladdin.”

The results were uneven, according to BVI president Mark Zoradi: the English version did well, the Tamil did OK, but Hindi prints did not draw audiences. The pic played young and wound up grossing about $450,000.

Other recent U.S. releases had similar experiences in India. UIP’s “True Lies” and “Schindler’s List” both did reasonably well in English, but the Hindi versions lagged. However, both the English and Hindi workings of Fox’s “Baby’s Day Out” have been successful.

Zoradi says, “We have to create an awareness of, and an appetite for, animation among adults. That’s no different to what we’ve done in a lot of other territories.”

To build that awareness, Modi is running a lot of previews and promotional screenings of “The Lion King,” which is undergoing a three-stage release. The original version bowed May 26, to be followed by the Tamil version on July 7, and in September/October the Hindi incarnation will roll out.

Noting the critical importance of music in many hit Indian films, Zoradi believes “Lion King” is well-served in that area.

Paige Beard, BVI senior marketing manager based in Hong Kong, flew to Bombay at the end of April to check on the promotion campaign.

Modi Films Intl. took on a major promotional partner in leading Indian home-electronics firm BPL Ltd. to orchestrate massive campaigns involving Star TV, the music channel V, radio and press. “BPL will act as our fully fledged co-presenter on the film,” says MFI marketing manager Purti Hajela.

As the market develops, Zoradi is confident of the prospects of BVI live-action pics such as “While You Were Sleeping” and “Crimson Tide.”

The Modi/BVI collaboration started a year ago when Modi approached Zoradi seeking to broaden the Disney relationship from TV and consumer products. “Our strategy was to hook up with a very solid Indian company,” he says.

Zoradi says he’s very excited about the cinema-building plans propelled by Modi’s co-venture with United Artists Theaters, and expects that will help redress the inadequate infrastructure for foreign-language films (see separate story).

Modi Films Intl. is negotiating with indie suppliers to bump up its annual release slate to 30-40 English-language movies a year.

Says head of operations Jiten Hemdev: “Our aim is to bring technology, computerization and recognized sales ethics into the freewheeling business that film implies in India. If we become a one-stop distribution shop on an all-India basis, then our deals can gain professional credence and a higher return for our (suppliers).” Hemdev continues, “Right now many films are undersold because of hurried deals.”

Adds Modi Films Intl. CEO Rajiv Sahai: “Reflecting the Modi philosophy to look ahead and be in control, it is imperative that we as marketers of films should also be in charge of our distribution pattern.”

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